You don’t expect a bro-mantic episode from Al Capp. Conventional wisdom in cartoon history characterizes the creator of Li’l Abner as a sharp-tongued and often reactionary crank at best and a mean sexual predator at worst. At Li’l Abner’s creative peak in the 1940s and 50s, he poked mercilessly at celebrities and politicians from every angle. His quick wit, and willingness to aim it at all comers, made him perfect for radio and TV talk shows, where he quickly became one of the most visible, familiar comic strip artists of his generation. While generally a populist defender of underdogs in his work and thought, Capp was repulsed by student activism in the 1970s. He did a contentious speaking tour of campuses in the late 60s and 70s, delighting in mocking and arguing with student rebels. The schtick was immortalized on film in 1969 when Capp dismissively argued with John Lennon and Yoko One during their Montreal Bed-In for Peace. And Capp is best (or worst) remembered these days as a serial sexual predator. Actresses Goldie Hawn and Grace Kelly and activist Jean Kilbourne wrote of Capp’s unwelcome, aggressive advances, and he pled guilty to sexual misconduct because of exposing himself to co-eds during his college speaking tour.
I’m a sucker for a good mad scientist, and the 1930s were brimming with them. We find them in pulp magazines, film and comic strips. Often bald, bespectacled, puny, deeply alienated and resentful, they were the prototypes of nerds-gone-wrong. The power-mad doctors, professors and other masters of technology were cautionary tales for a modernizing America about the risks of science without moral guardrails. In 1936, Al Capp put his unique satirical spin on the tropes when Mammy and Pappy Yokum briefly encounter Dr. Lopez, who is doing the old brain-transplant scheme. And Capp goes against type, making his laboratory fiend an elegant Spaniard in a tux and well-coiffed goatee.
This is a brief episode from the early years of Li’l Abner, and it finds Capp lurching towards the pop culture parody and signature visual stylings that would propel the strip into its greatest period in the 1940s and 50s. In its first stages, Capp felt constrained trying to satisfy the two dominant strains of mid-century comics – adventure and domestic sit-com. Capp leaned heavily on country vs. city culture clashes in the early years. Con men and thieves drop into Dogpatch, only to be defeated by the “rubes,” and hillbillies come to the city to send up the pretentions of sophisticates and expose the shallow selfishness of city folk. But after a few years, Capp starts turning to pop culture as his enduring source for send-ups and social commentary.
Capp’s wit, comic timing and visual style are also maturing here. He focused on faces, taking pride in facial expression as the center of the strip. Despite a crew of assistants often inking bodies and drawing backgrounds, Capp always insisted on doing the faces himself. According to one biographer, he kept a mirror near the drawing board so he could act out the facial expressions of his characters. And this comes through if you track these panels just via the faces. He loves putting eyebrows, eyes and mouth in extreme poses. You can almost see Capp mugging for his mirror in order to capture just the right pose. Few cartoonists of the 30s relied so fully on facial expression as Capp. Alex Raymond comes to mind. In fact it wasn’t until the 1950s when Raymond’s brand of realism became standard, and the comics panels shrunk, that we see cartoonists use close-ups and facial drama in the ways Capp is doing in the 1930s and 40s.
But I especially like the pacing, humor and pathos in the strip above. When Dr. Lopez aborts his plan to trade Pappy’s brain for a gorilla’s (because Pappy’s is too small), Mammy soothes her shamed husband with the assurance, “mebbe it were an unusual smart gorilla.” It is both a great punch line, timed and framed perfectly as a kicker in the back ground, but it is tender. The Yokums are a matriarchy that Capp had claimed was based on the relationship between his own assertive mother and retiring father. Capp’s burlesque of that dynamic in the Yokums turns Mammy into an assertive Mom with a killer punch. At one point Pappy recalls their elopement, when it was Mammy who brought the ladder and whisked her man off. But Capp crafts Mammy carefully, and perhaps informed by emotional notes of his own family history. She is always careful never to diminish her husband and minister to his ego as mindfully as she does to his body.
Why don’t we hear more of the marvelously talented, witty, prolific American cartoonist Gladys Parker (1908-1966)? She was the mother of the long running strip and comic book character Mopsy. More than that, Parker was among the better-known cartoonists of the day, in part because she was also a fashion designer to both the general public as well as Hollywood stars. Meanwhile, Parker was a frequent item in the celebrity gossip columns of the 1940s as she dated a noted boxer and character actor.
Why don’t we know more about Gladys Parker? Well, obviously for the same reasons we don’t know more about Nell Brinkley or Ethel Hays or Jackie Ormes, despite the high quality of their work and substantial public profile in their own day? Not only has the comics field itself been overwhelmingly male dominated, but its history has been written almost entirely by men. And yet, as I myself encounter these overlooked artists as I make my way through comics history, I am struck by their singular visions, how different their aesthetic and social perspective were from their male brethren. To miss these women in our history of the medium is to narrow our understanding of the rich creative range the comic strip reached in the last century. Brinkley used color, facial and emotional expression, line, the contours of the Sunday comics page in ways no other artist did in the 1910s and 1920s. Ormes’ racial satire was sharp and blunt at a time when American needed it desperately. And Parker brought the feminine wit of Hollywood romantic comedy into the comics page and merged the aesthetics of fashion with those of the comic strip into a drawing style that was unlike any other on the comics page.
I admit it has taken a while for me to come around to appreciating Hal Foster and his epic Prince Valiant. Foster always struck me frankly as a bit of a stiff – literally. My perfunctory attempts to dig into Prince Val, its stylistic roots in book illustration, its focus on Arthurian legend and royal grandeur, its high moral seriousness, its un-ironic and humorless depiction of heroism – seemed contrary to the very things that drew me to comic strip art in the first place. And even as I press myself into the first ten years of PV, I still find Foster stolid and inexpressive compared to fellow realist Alex Raymond. Foster takes himself too seriously, is too grounded in a realist’s sensibility, to let the campy, erotic subtexts of pulp melodrama energize his adventures the way they do Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Terry and the Pirates or even Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy. It should surprise no one that Hal Foster at first looked down on cartooning as slumming in order to support his earlier ambitions as a book and magazine illustrator. Personally, I think the strip retained that condescension to the medium even long after Foster himself purportedly embraced the possibilities of the form. While others viewed the obvious pristine artistry of Prince Valiant as somehow the pinnacle of comic strip art, its presence in the Sunday funnies section always felt to me like a tight-lipped dude in a tuxedo trying to get into a keg party.
While it goes without saying that Hal Foster was a much more buttoned down, stiff and restrained adventure artist than the ebullient Alex Raymond, he had his moments of gratuitous cheesecake. Here, from some 1939 sequences, Prince Valiant strips down for some manly bathing.
Hal Foster was never shy about pouring on the bloody swords, celebrations of battle, corpse-coated fields of war. In fact some foreign markets censored the strip when they felt Prince Val’s love of war crossed the line. But showing skin? Not so much.
Even comics aficionados barely recall the very popular aviation adventure strips of the late 1920s and 1930s, perhaps because, well, they just weren’t very memorable. Tailspin Tommy, Scorchy Smith, Smilin’ Jack, Flyin’ Jenny, and Skyroads, to name a few, were definitely of their time, tapping into the most romantic technology of early 20th Century – aviation. The wild tales of WWI air battles, the triumph of machine and human endurance in Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic, the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance fueled film, pulp magazines, and even popular science journals with an admixture of human spirit, adventure to far off lands and technical jargon that many audiences, especially boys, ate up. The strips captured that blend. Many of them were created by pilots who brought their love and knowledge of flight to the strips. Much of the art was unremarkable. Noel Sickles’ work on Scorchy Smith was a legendary exception, and Russell Keaton had a polished and breezy style in Flyin’ Jenny. For the most part, however, aviation cartoonists were more in love with the planes than their own characters, and they tended to focus effort and attention on the planes themselves.
Frank Miller, however, brought Barney Baxter in the Air (1935-1949) a special whimsy to the genre both in his characterizations and line work. From the Art Deco/Machine Age feel of his lettering to the rounded nature of his figures, everything about this strip feels sophisticated, considered, modern . His faces are comprised of a few deft dabs of ink. The upholstered texture of his people and objects are somewhere between big foot cartooning and classic adventure realism. And this allows him to bring his style to either extreme as it fits the scene. It reminds me of (or foreshadows) Rick Geary, whose style I also love. Miller is adept at using a variety of panel framings to keep the eye energized across the progression. His narrower close-up panels call out important moments of gesture or expression. And he has such a stylized way of rendering shadows in a pointillist style. It all adds up to a visual signature that light, witty, and yet functional as a vehicle for adventure. The feel is similar to Capp’s Li’l Abner.
His skills often came together in some truly creepy villains.
Miller lavishes attention and invention on his Sunday pages. He is breaking frame, manipulating panel shapes and sizes with the kind of energy we usually associate with McCay, King or Sterrett. The detail and color in his rocky backgrounds are just wonderful for establishing setting. He maneuvers our point of view radically from panel to panel to bring us into the scene by circling us around it. And just look at that open parachute as the visual centerpiece of the whole layout. If that isn’t an homage to McCay, I don’t know what is.
Frank Miller, obviously not the Frank Miller of later comic book fame, ran the strip throughout its 15 year span and until his premature death in 1949.